Union Sportive Oyonnax’s history stems back to 1909, when Jules Verchere founded a club in the town for the first time. In 1940, the club took on its current guise, having already established the Stade Charles Mathon as their home. Between 1967 and 1972, Oyonnax played the majority of their rugby in the top division of French rugby before a long spell in the lower leagues over the following 30 years.
In 2003, les rouges et noirs finished runners-up of the Fédérale 1 and earned promotion to the Pro D2, where they’ve spent the last 10 years, often seen as over-achievers thanks to making the final in 2009 and semi-finals in 2010. Alongside Montpellier and Brive, les Oyonnaxiens are the only Top 14 team never to have won the French championship. So far trophies have proven elusive for Oyonnax, with just a Coupe de l’Espérance, a Nationale 1 title, and last season’s Pro D2 plaque occupying the trophy cabinet.
Oyonnax, in the Ain department, has a population of around 23,000. Their closest Top 14 rivals are Grenoble, who also inhabit the Rhône-Alpes region in the east of France. Capacity at the Stade Charles Mathon has been expanded to 12,000 in recent months and the stadium has a fantastic reputation thanks to the level of support from the rugby-obsessed town. The man whom the stade is named after was an Oyonnax-born player, later killed in the Second World War.
Oyonnax began the campaign as 66/1 outsiders for the Pro D2, but aided by intelligent recruitment and the fortress that is Stade Charles Mathon (they won all 15 home games), the Ain-based side romped to the title. In the end, Oyonnax finished 17 points clear of second-placed Brive. Their attack was ruthless all season with 86 tries in 30 games, 20 clear of the next best. In defence, they were the third most solid in the Pro D2. The comfort provided by that dominance allowed Oyonnax to plan early for their maiden appearance in the Top 14.
The most important thing for the club is le maintien, staying up. It’s a huge ask for a club with such little Top 14 history but as Bordeaux and Grenoble have shown in recent seasons, it is possible. It’s an exciting time for Oyonnax as a club. As well as increasing the capacity of their stadium, they have improved the changing rooms and facilities, and it will need to be as reliable a stronghold as last season. The club are well aware of their status as relegation favourites, and have been preparing with the attitude of having nothing to lose.
Club president Jean-Marc Manducher told Midi Olympique: “We’re already winners. This rise into the Top 14 will allow us to solidify the presence of Oyonnax in the world of professional rugby.” Head coach Christophe Urios added: “We wanted promotion. We fought for it. It offers us the opportunity to experience a new challenge. We must approach it with humility, passion, ambition and especially without any complex.” Oyonnax will be the archetypal plucky underdogs.
As a player, Urios won a French championship with Castres in 1993. His first coaching job was with the same club, as forwards coach from 2002 to 2005, when he took up his first head coaching job at Bourgoin. In 2007, he dropped down to the Pro D2 with Oyonnax and has been there since. Urios values the “human” aspect of coaching: “I strive daily to ensure that everyone is able to answer fundamental questions: what his place in the group is, what is expected of him, what he brings. That exchange with the players is at the heart of our work.” His movements in the transfer market over the last number of seasons has been extremely effective.
With a first European campaign in the Challenge Cup ahead, as well as the Top 14 to contend with, Oyonnax have added no less than 16 new players to their squad this summer. That is tempered by 11 departures, including last season’s excellent scrumhalf Julien Audy. Among the more notable signings are Guillaume Boussès, Silvère Tian and Damian Browne.
32-year-old Boussès is a centre with almost 12 full seasons of Top 14 experience, and one French cap from 2006. After two years of limited opportunities at Racing Metro, he will be desperate to prove himself. Tian joins for his second spell at Oyonnax after leaving relegated Agen. The 32-year-old Ivory Coast international fullback/wing is capable of moments of magic and his experience will help too. 31-year-old English hooker Neil Clark joins from the Exeter Chiefs.
Oyonnax are captained by Englishman Joe El-Abd. The 33-year-old flanker spent three seasons with Toulon before becoming an Oyonnaxien last season. His leadership and know-how will be crucial. Outhalf Benjamín Urdapilleta is the on-pitch heartbeat of the side. The 6-times capped Argentine provides inventiveness in attack, as well as being accurate with the boot. The 27-year-old scored 232 points in the Pro D2 last season, and looks at home in Oyonnax after two years with Harlequins.
At fullback, Florian Denos was the Pro D2’s top try-scorer last season with 17 in 28 games. The 27-year-old has previously played Top 14 rugby with Bourgoin and Castres, after developing at Toulouse. His assurance and leadership at the back will be valuable. At inside centre, Hemani Paea is 112kg of Tongan ball-carrying and big-tackling power. Having started his professional career down in Fédérale 1, this will be entirely new territory for Paea.
Denos and El Abd were both part of the Pro D2 Team of the Season for 2012/13, as was loosehead prop Antoine Tichit, a former France U19 and U20 international. At 24, there are high hopes for Tichit who has all the skills needed to play at the highest level. The Top 14, where the mantra is “no scrum, no win”, will truly test Tichit. Elsewhere, No. 8 Chad Slade (31) is a Samoan international, tighthead Clément Baïocco (33) is capped for France, and flanker Scott Newlands (27) has played for Scotland.
Damian Browne is back in the Top 14 for the second time, having spent three years with Brive from 2008 to 2011. After two frustrating seasons with Leinster, the 33-year-old will expect to play every weekend. Head coach Urios will value Browne’s Top 14 experience highly, and the Galway native will be expected to smash rucks, provide power in the scrum and generally put his 126kg frame to good use. Browne will need be well motivated for what is likely to be a testing season and a relegation battle at Oyonnax.